Study Guide

The Social Contract

by Jean-Jacques Rousseau

The Social Contract Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

A Treatise on the Social Contract: Or, The Principles of Politic Law, commonly known as The Social Contract, is a product of Rousseau’s retreat from Paris. This examination of government appeared in 1762, the same year as Émile, his treatise on education. In The Confessions, Rousseau emphasizes the awkwardness that he felt in society. He was a deeply solitary man who found social life distracting and distasteful. Yet when he reflected on society, Rousseau created a work that provided posterity with the vocabulary, with the terms and assumptions that would be employed, consciously or unconsciously, to address social issues for the next two centuries and beyond.

“Man is born free, and yet we see him everywhere in chains.” Thus Rousseau opens his treatise on human government, establishing his unique point of view. He continues: “Those who believe themselves the masters of others cease not to be even greater slaves than the people they govern.” Rousseau is himself a master at noting the contradictions underlying all generally accepted values. Perhaps that is one explanation for the enormous influence of the work.

The Social Contract is a major source, for example, of the doctrine of popular sovereignty. Almost all modern states claim to be “people’s states.” Public deliberation, mass demonstrations, voting, plebiscites, all rituals for arousing a popular will are as necessary to authoritarian states as to liberal ones. It is generally accepted that The Social Contract exposes a doctrine that is valid. The only argument concerns its interpretation.

Rousseau, whose master in political philosophy was Plato, knew that the problems of contemporary democracy arise from the fact that the ideals of that form of government were developed in the intimate community of the Greek city-state and are inapplicable to the needs of the centralized and technological nation-state. Yet, as a moralist, Rousseau is mainly concerned...

(The entire section is 821 words.)

The Social Contract Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Social Contract stands as one of the great classics of political philosophy. In three earlier works, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s basic theme had gradually emerged. Rousseau attacked the basic principles of Enlightenment thought, a philosophy that was dominant in eighteenth century Europe. Enlightenment thinkers sought to free philosophy and religion from the superstitions of the past. They supported the use of reason and science as the foundation for all belief and conduct. In contrast, Rousseau maintained that human understanding is not the sole domain of reason, but is, as he stated, “greatly indebted to passions.” Therefore, to understand one’s relationship to society, it is necessary to return to a state of nature to search for a better political order.

Political philosophers before Rousseau, most notably the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), believed that before people formed society, life was a perpetual state of war—“every man against every man.” The only way for people to live together in peace, then, was to form a social contract in which the citizens establish a mutually agreed-upon form of social organization.

Rousseau’s thinking about the social contract was the exact opposite of what was commonly accepted at the time. He argued that people are not evil and selfish in the state of nature as Hobbes claimed. In Rousseau’s view, society breeds inequality and selfishness because society involves the acquisition of power and private property. Thus was born his famous concept of the noble savage, who existed in a time in which all people lived together in peace and harmony, free from the constraints of society.

The Social Contract revolves around the issue of political obligation. The issue is to find a form of association that will defend and protect a person with the united force of society but will allow each person the greatest possible measure of individual freedom. Unlike Rousseau’s earlier works, The Social Contract recognizes the need for civil society, despite its depriving citizens of some of their freedoms. In the state of nature, people pursue their self-interest until they discover that the power to preserve themselves against the threats of others is not strong enough. In justifying the transition from the state of nature to civil society, Rousseau argues for a system of government that retains the best “instincts” that people had in the state of nature while incorporating the added values, such as stability and security, that a political organization can give. This is a radical departure from Rousseau’s earlier writings, in which he was extremely suspicious of all forms of central authority. The task of The Social Contract is to find the basis for a legitimate compact between people and authority and then describe a legitimate form of government that will represent all people.

To begin, Rousseau first discounts some traditional forms of government that, he argues, can never be the basis of a just political order: the rule of the strongest, any government allowing slavery, and monarchy that claims the sanction of divine right. As for the first, the idea that might makes right has no place in Rousseau’s political system. People yield to force out of necessity and fear not because they want to; there is no contract worthy of the name in such a society. Those who rule by force are not bound by any sense of morality, so Rousseau concludes that force does not create right. As for slavery, Rousseau acknowledges that the Greeks and Romans had slaves, and they believed that slavery was natural for some people, but he argues that for people to surrender their rights to a master is incompatible with human nature, because people do not voluntarily enter into a condition of servitude. As for rule by divine right, Rousseau cannot see how one person could possibly preserve the rights of all of his (or her) subjects and at the same time protect his private interests. When the ruler dies, what most often happens is that his empire collapses as a result of the sudden lack of central authority and power. Such a collapse creates disorder and insecurity; the terms of the social contract are not, therefore, honored.

After rejecting each of these illegitimate forms of government, Rousseau turns to the idea of the social contract, and he uses it in a very different way than other seventeenth and eighteenth century...

(The entire section is 1815 words.)